What’s Happening at the Site where the Pearl Ship Sunk off the Coast of Sri Lanka?

Ship on the sea with sunset
Sri Lanka
What’s Happening at the Site where the Pearl Ship Sunk off the Coast of Sri Lanka?

“About 700 km of sea area from Mannar, in North SL to Kirinda in South Sri Lanka is polluted. The largest spillage of plastic pollution in the world was caused by the Pearl ship disaster in 2021. The impact is likely to be felt for another 20 to 30 years,” said Darshini Lahandapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority. 

A crane on a vessel lifts containers out of the ocean
A vessel clears containers from the ocean floor that were spilled in the Pearl Ship accident in 2021 / Credit: Virakesari Online.

The incident brought worldwide attention to the Sri Lankan coastal area. The full extent of the disaster’s environmental impact is still being determined. The Pearl Ship, which set sail from the Malaysian port of Tanjung Phillips on April 30, 2021, arrived at the port of Jabal Ali in the United Arab Emirates on May 9. It was scheduled to depart on May 10 and to continue its journey to Singapore. In the meantime, it anchored in Qatar, in India and then anchored on May 19, 2021, 9.5 km from the Sri Lankan port of Colombo. 

The next day, on May 20, the ship caught fire it burned until May 28. The coastal area of Sri Lanka was in a state of panic. 

It was a massive threat to the ocean. The ship was carrying 1486 containers of chemicals, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid and 12 thousand metric tons of plastic particles. 

This scale of marine pollution drew headlines across local media as well as international media. The government of Sri Lanka stopped the public from visiting beaches in order to clear up the remaining waste from the shipwreck. 

Marine life, especially rare species of turtles, dolphins, and whales, started to die after this incident.  

“The Pearl shipwreck was the only cause of the death of rare sea turtles and dolphins, due to acid poisoning,” said Kemantha Vithanage, a senior adviser at the Center for Environmental Justice. 

It is believed that this incident has claimed the lives of many marine species. It is said to have gone as far as the deep sea and destroyed the biodiversity of the seas off the Sri Lankan coast. 

As a result, Sri Lankan people became very wary of consuming fish and Sri Lanka’s marine industry was severely affected. 

“Out of seven species of sea turtles in the world, five species of sea turtles live in Sri Lankan waters. It is impossible to estimate how many sea creatures had died. We were able to count only the ones which reached the shore. Many creatures may have died and sunk to the bottom of the sea,” says Ganapathipillai Arulananthan, Chief Scientist at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Center (NARA). 

A crane lifts a container out of the ocean
Containers containing microplastic and other substances are removed from the ocean where they were spilled from the Peal Ship / Credit: Virakesari Online.

The grave impact on marine life became a major issue for marine pollution activists. Ecologists began to point out that this was not just a short-term environmental condition but also a long-term environmental threat. 

Sea turtles typically lay more than 1000 eggs for only one to survive to adulthood. sea turtle. Trying to recover the sea turtle population that died after this disaster will not be an easy task. “If more female sea turtles died, there will be trouble getting [an adequate number of] eggs,” says Darshini Lahanthapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority. 

However, to date, the loss of this marine life has not been properly reported. The remains and organs of dead were not  properly examined. 

“Most of the damage caused by the Pearl shipwreck has not yet been released as many test results have not been released. Mortality of marine life is currently decreasing. But when we try to move the Pearl ship out from the sea, there is a chance that the death toll will increase again” said Vithanage from the Center for Environmental Justice. 

It has been eight months since the shipwreck and now, it appears that people have started eating fish again. Yet the problem for fishermen has changed in other ways. 

Boat in the sea with sunset
Sri Lankan fishers have been banned from fishing in the area since the day the Pearl ship burned / Credit: Jens Rademacher via Unsplash.

Boundaries have been put in place to prevent entry into the area around the ship; now these have been relaxed slightly after several months. This is the season where the fish numbers multiply and fishers catch large amount of fish but now the fish stocks are dwindling.  

"I do not think the number of fish have decreased as a result of the shipwreck. I think the fish may have moved away from the pollution caused by the shipwreck,” says Vithanage. 

A fisherman stands on the beach next to boats
“Fish habitat will be affected by the chemicals in the sea and fish reproduction will be affected too,” says Ajith, a 44-year-old resident of Dikovita who has been in the fishing business for the last 25 years / Credit: Virakesari Online. 

 This reporter contacted the Chairman of the Marine Environment Protection Authority to find out more. Operations to remove the submerged containers are currently underway. A panel of experts has been appointed to investigate. In this panel there are two eminent professors and 40 experts who are investigating environmental pollution in different ways. 

“A comprehensive report has been prepared on a number of issues, including the death of species, seabed damage, coral reef damage, and seawater and air pollution,” said Darshini Lahandapura of the Marine Environment Protection Authority. 

At the same time, “plastic nurdles and a liquid substance called raisin gum that fell from the ship into the sea have a greater impact on the marine environment than chemical changes in the ocean. In particular, the liquid substance called resin gum has spread to the deep sea and it has affected the marine environment and fisheries,” said Ganapathipillai Arulananthan, chief scientist at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). 

The Center for Environmental Justice has released a list of materials and hazardous chemicals that were being transported by the Pearl ship. A total of 1486 containers were kept in it. They contained 25 metric tons of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other hazardous chemicals, and 12 thousand metric tons of plastic raw materials. Only about 150 containers of 1486 containers have been removed so far, says Arulananthan of NARA. 

So far, the 150 containers that have been removed were empty; it seems that all the chemicals are mixed in the sea.  

All of the containers from the ship were scattered in the deep sea. “Measures to dispose of these are being taken seriously. These are carried out in two phases. An American company is carrying out this work,” said the Marine Environment Protection Authority’s Lahanthapura. 

There are also steps to safely dispose of the containers. If they are not safely removed or brought back into the country correctly, they might cause more harm to the environment. Is Public opinion is that they are a great threat to land and air. 

“They have completed 70% of the disposal work. Two officers from the Marine Environment Protection Authority oversee those tasks full time. They record videos, take photos and take water samples,” said Lahanthapura. 

Debris taken from this area is taken to a temporary storage facility at Wattala, Sri Lanka. If there are any remains which can be destroyed internally, they are destroyed without any harm to the country. Debris that cannot be destroyed internally or that may  cause damage to the environment is taken away from the country. Here, both officials from the Marine Environment Protection Authority and customs officials are on full-time duty,” he added. 

Lahanthapura also said that the second stage is to lift the ship. This task has been handed over to a Chinese company. Two ships from China have arrived and they are exploring how to lift the ship and remove it from the deep sea. 

In Sri Lanka, research, results and activities are carried out by foreign countries. Sri Lanka’s environmental activities can only depend on their decisions. Fears of long-term impact still linger among the population. People worry about the toxins in certain fish that could infiltrate human bodies. 

“We know that only a small amount of plastic particles (nurdles) were removed from the seashore, the rest of them will last for the next 500 to 1000 years. It is certain that this shipwreck will have a huge impact on the environment in the future,” said Kemantha Vithanage, Environmental Scientist to the Center for Environmental Justice. 

Dr. Chandima Wijegunawardena, an ecologist, echoed Vithanage’s sentiments: “The damage caused by the sunken ship to the Sri Lankan maritime environment will be irreparable for many years and will have a major impact on the fisheries in our country for many years to come.” 

We continue to carry out long-term research on changes happening in seawater, fishers and soils, etc.,” says Ganapathipillai Arulananthan, chief scientist at NARA. 

But will these studies and their results be presented to the public? If there is not much to fear from such issues, then why is the sea around the ship still blocked off to fishermen? 

In the event of another shipwreck like this, Sri Lanka does not have the materials or facilities to carry out the next phase of operations. Therefore, advice has been received from the President to set up a ‘Marine Disaster Management Center’. Steps have been taken not only by the Marine Environment Protection Authority but also by all parties including the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ports Authority to prepare a joint report. 

“We look forward to holding talks with the Singapore Maritime Safety Authority soon. Countries like Singapore and Australia have expressed interest in advising us. We will also meet with the Australian team. They will also discuss  the mechanism under which they operate,” says Darshini Lahanthapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, who added that the Center would be set up with this international advice.  

Based on the comments from the chairman of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshini Lahandapura, the Government is moving towards a solution to deal with such incidents in the future, even as it acknowledges the long-term impact of the disaster. 

But we do not know whether these steps will satisfy the people and the environment. The Sri Lankan people remain concerned about the long-term impacts of the environmental pollution and how the government is going to address these issues. 

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Tamil by Virakesari Online and republished in English by Mini News Hub  on 20 February 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A fishing vessel at sunset / Credit: Egle Sidaraviciute via Unsplash.

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